Like knowing the how to crack and cook a whole lobster, shucking an oyster is a skill that you might not need every day, but it’s a very handy trick to have up your sleeve when the opportunity arises. It’s a skill that we’re still working on honing, but master shucker Matt Balikov, who posts behind the oyster bar at Chicago’s seafood mecca Pearl Tavern, has perfected the craft quite impressively.
Though there is an old adage dictating that we should only eat oysters in months that have the letter “R” in them, that rule no longer applies. Balikov says that this rule comes from a time when we did not have strong and efficient means of refrigeration for transportation. Since we can now send oysters from coast to coast in a matter of hours after harvest, they are generally considered to be available year round.
There are some types that can only be purchased in certain time periods for reason such as ice sheet formation, accessibility to harvest locations and individual farmers preferences,but in general, seasonality is no longer a major issue for oysters.
With the widespread availability of oysters from coast to coast, we taped Balikov to give us some tips on how to shuck and prepare them at home when you can’t make it out to let the experts to it for you.
Know Your Oysters
When it comes to buying oysters, as with most types of seafood, it is important to buy them from a reputable source and inspect them upon purchase. “Most people think that all oysters will be good if they are purchased from the store, however, each oyster must be inspected for freshness once it is opened,” said Balikov.
Home cooks should think about when they intend to cook and consume the oysters. Balikov suggest only buying oysters for the day you would like to consume them. “Another thing to consider is what size oyster you would like,” he said. “Also consider whether you have a preference to East or West coast oysters and if your recipe requires one or the other.”
“When Shucking oysters, and doing anything in the kitchen, it is best to make sure that you are set up properly,” said Balikov. “For this process one would want to make sure that they have plenty of ice to surround the unshucked oysters and crushed ice to place the raw shucked oyster on.”
In addition to ice, you should always have an oyster knife and a metal mesh glove or cloth kitchen towel to hold the oyster with to steady it. Balikov says that this ensures a solid grip and helps to prevent ones self from puncturing their hand with the sharp oyster knife.
While oysters should always be kept cold on ice, a wide misconception about oysters is that they are able to sit in water. Balikov says this is untrue, as it will cause the oysters to filter the water they are in and will kill them before they have been shucked (a dead oyster is a bad oyster).
Use Your Oyster Knife
Once you’re properly set up, holding the oyster in a kitchen towel or glove in your non-dominant hand, place the tip of the shucking knife into the hinge point of the oyster and give it a slight wiggle so that it is stably inserted.
Then with control of force the shucking knife should lever the oyster open while sliding across the top (flat) part of the oyster to disconnect the top abductor muscle. According to Balikov, there is a top and bottom abductor, which is how the oyster is able to open and close itself.
Do you really need to buy special equipment to shuck oysters? It depends how knife skilled you are. Shucking knives, available at most kitchen stores, have bent tips and a sturdy stainless steel blade to make prying open shells a snap. The soft, comfortable handles won’t slip in your hand, even when wet.
The final step is to wipe away any shell or dirt within the oyster and separate the bottom abductor to allow the oyster meat to float free in its own liquor, which is the name for the briny (and very much edible) liquid inside the oyster. Make sure to place the shucked oyster on ice until it is ready to be cooked or consumed raw. Oysters should always be kept very cold to ensure freshness.
Once you’ve shucked your oysters, you can enjoy them raw, but they are also delicious in a number of different hot and cold recipes. Balikov suggests new home cooks starting out with “Oysters Rockefeller” which is a classic hot preparation that everyone should be able to grab from a family recipe collection or cookbook. “Another great use for raw oysters is to remove them from the shell and add the meat to a stir-fry or soup.”